Temporary reassignments offer Transportation employees new opportunities

Posted: October 21, 2020

Last March, when statewide school closures for in-person instruction stretched from two weeks to the remainder of the school year, school divisions across Virginia scrambled to resolve multiple challenges the necessary response to the Covid-19 virus created.

Often school divisions are among the largest employers in a community, and many of those employees are hourly, non-exempt workers, subject to different regulations for pay and time away from work than salaried teachers and administrators.

In Newport News Public Schools, Superintendent Dr. George Parker and senior administrators were determined that students, their families, and school employees should not be harmed by the accommodations the school division needed to make. To keep hourly workers on the payroll, many employees were temporarily reassigned to cover tasks the special circumstances created.

Through the Community Eligibility Provision, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program, NNPS has made meals free to all students since 2019. Cathy Alexander, executive director of child nutrition and wellness, knew that many families depended on the meals students received at school and would need continued support while schools were closed.

Meals were prepared and packaged by child nutrition staff and delivered on school buses with drivers, bus assistants, and security staff setting up sites throughout the city. The deliveries became happy and safely distanced drive-through events that allowed families to feel supported and connected to schools. Additionally, transportation staff joined the technology team at several pick-up locations throughout the city to help distribute Chromebooks, internet hotspots and the packets of instructional materials students needed to maintain their studies.

In addition to their help with meal distribution, security officers also work with youth development staff to offer mentoring and tutoring services to students.

Instructional assistants continue to work from home or in their assigned buildings. School nurses continue to work in schools.

Some substitute teachers and substitute administrative assistants have been tapped to help with the many technology help desk calls that come in as families navigate virtual learning.

Transportation staff assigned to individual schools were prepared to help wherever they were needed. Bus drivers Lisa Bares and Lou Mahone were assigned to Palmer Elementary, where they helped inside the building before the school's assistant principal Jeff Armstrong suggested that the school's courtyard could use some attention.

When Bares named some supplies that would help the project, she said Armstrong told her, "Okay, boss! Whatever you need!"

Mahone was happy to contribute his carpentry skills as he cut new salt-treated lumber to refurbish the worn picnic tables that now look brand new.

"I hadn't used these skills in 20 years, but I got to work outside and do something different," he said.

Bares, Mahone, and custodian Tammie Weaver painted the picnic tables, chairs, benches and handrails in Palmer's red and white school colors.

The courtyard now looks like a Japanese garden, with neatly trimmed trees, new plantings, a refreshed pond with koi fish, and Adirondack chairs just waiting for outdoor lessons when students return. The team helped spruce up the entrance to the school as well, with flowers newly planted in freshly painted pots.

Bares said, "Mr. Armstrong made sure we had whatever we needed to get the job done-mulch, soil from Plant Services, pansies and perennials to plant in the flowerbeds. I enjoy working outside and was glad to trim trees, paint and plant flowers."

The beautification at Palmer Elementary is just one example of creative reassignments that kept hourly employees working and contributing to tasks that might have remained undone or delayed.

The happy result of these arrangements? NNPS was able to avoid layoffs and keep experienced employees on staff. Schools and sites around the city had extra hands available, and employees enjoyed a change of scene and a chance to use untapped talents with new coworkers. Another important benefit of this approach is that when schools resume regular operations, NNPS will be ready quickly, without the crisis that might have been created by a rush to fill vacancies or rehire employees who may have accepted work elsewhere.

Lisa Bares and Lou Malone transformed the courtyard at Palmer Elementary as part of their temporary reassignment during school closure.
Lisa Bares and Lou Malone transformed the courtyard at Palmer Elementary as part of their temporary reassignment during school closure.
Dedra Woodard helped with bulletin boards at Dutrow Elementary
Dedra Woodard helped with bulletin boards at Dutrow Elementary
John Sotomayor assisted at Gildersleeve Middle.
John Sotomayor assisted at Gildersleeve Middle.